Hamilton police chief credits economy, law enforcement for plunging crime rate

In a Q & A with CBC Hamilton, Police Chief Glenn De Caire responded to a Statistics Canada report showing that the city's violent crime rate dropped 19 per cent in 2012 — the highest decrease in the country.

Nineteen-per-cent drop in violent crime rate proof that 'investment in policing is paying off in a very profound way:' De Caire

Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire explains a budget proposal at the police services board in December 2012. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Police heralded on Wednesday a new Statistics Canada report showing the violent crime rate in the Hamilton area in 2012 was down 19 per cent over the previous year — the largest decrease of any region in the country. And for the fifth year in a row, the study suggested, the city saw a drop in its overall crime, down seven per cent from 2011.

CBC Hamilton spoke with Hamilton Police Chief Glenn De Caire on Friday to get his take on these trends. The city's top cop said the decrease in crime speaks both to Hamilton's economic resurgence as well as to the quality of its law enforcement. Moreover, he defended his campaign at council to increase funding for the police force, arguing cuts to service would have direct impact upon safety upon Hamilton streets.

What impact do you hope this report will have on the perception of how safe Hamilton is?

First of all, we need to be really, really clear that this report is about reported crime. So we have to keep up all of our efforts and our educational outreach to encourage people to report crime, particularly in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault. There are a lot of reasons, but we believe those are underreported crimes.

But we're very encouraged by this report. It's very positive in the fact that Hamilton has experienced the single largest decrease in our country in the violent crime rate, the fourth-largest decrease in the total crime rate and the sixth-largest overall over a five-year trend period.

So it's very, very positive, but within that, we're also quite conservative in that we have some continued challenges ahead of us that remain very important to focus on.

What factors do you think have contributed to this drop in the violent crime rate?

I give an awful lot of credit to what's going on here in Hamilton. And it's not all about policing — although policing and public safety is huge part of this. It's about what we're doing as a city.

Let's look at, first of all, what's going on with the economy. We're seeing in Hamilton increasing housing starts, educational opportunities through McMaster University. We've seen employment rise. And in all of these other measures that we look at in the province, Hamilton is fairing better than many other cities.

But for the Hamilton police, for us, we have strategic enforcement programs. Our enforcement on Highway Traffic Act offences has increased 50 per cent over the past four years. We have the ACTION program, which is the strategic deployment of officers into specific areas that are identified through crime analysis. We're trying to divert people out of the justice system through the social navigator program. We have a lot of programs here that are designed to help on the issue of public safety and I am absolutely committed that our crime analysis strategy is having a very significant impact.

But I have to tell you that the biggest part of our strategy is the men and women of the Hamilton Police Service. They continue to deliver excellence in policing every single day. We're very proud of their efforts on an individual basis and their professionalism.

In the last budget cycle, you asked council for a controversial budget increase to hire more staff. Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla told CBC Hamilton this week that the decrease in violent crime demonstrates that funding for the Hamilton Police Service doesn't need to be increased. How do you respond to that?

Let's be absolutely clear that the investment that Hamiltonians make in policing has produced a 19-per-cent decrease [in violent crime], the highest in the nation. If you invest at any lower level, what is that percentage going to be? If it's three per cent, then that loss will be 16 per cent. And that loss represents the number of victims of crimes increasing.

The measure of success in policing isn't the response to crime; the measure of success in policing is the absence of crime. And when we can eliminate 19 per cent in the violent crime rate in one year — the highest decrease in the nation — that is evidence that the investment in policing is paying off in a very profound way.

But if investment levels are kept where they are and the other trends that you say have decreased violent crime were to continue, is that not satisfactory?

If it's satisfactory, then you'd have to be content to stand in front of those victims of crime and say that's an acceptable rate of victimization. If you reduce the budget and you reduce the personnel, we will have to end some of these programs. And when you end these programs that by all the research and all of the performance measurement indicators are producing, you must be confident that you're okay with an increased level of victimization.

De Caire said court rulings and changes to provincial policy have increased the amount of time officers have to spend on administrative duties, creating the need for more staff. (Terry Asma/CBC)

Also, the current budget that was approved has 15 additional officers that are heading into the Hamilton Police Service in 2013. Let's keep in mind that the reason for that is, although our calls for service remain relatively stable around 80,000, the time that is required to complete those calls has increased over 36,000 hours per year over the last five-to-six years.

Why is that?

What's happening is, there'll be a new decision that comes from the Supreme Court that impacts procedure or…there'll be a new administrative procedure, something that has to happen. And we don't get any say in that. If the Supreme Court makes a ruling, we have to respond. All of those processes that come in, they consume officers' patrol time.

What we're seeing is, the increase in time that's required for the calls the service is decreasing their proactive time for community outreach, mobilization, enforcement — all of those things that still need to be done. In order to keep these very significant and positive gains going forward, we require additional people to do that.

Will you be pursuing money for additional staff in the next budget cycle?

The fact of the matter is, at this point, I do not know the answer to the question because we're doing many things inside the service to try to save our officers' time as well.

Police use-of-force numbers between 2008 and 2012, many of those metrics are up. How do you view those trends in light of the decrease in violent crime?

The officers, in 80,000 calls for service, have over 300,000 contacts a year. And the numbers we see in use of force go anywhere from 225 to 270 each year. Those numbers, they represent less than a half of a percent of all the contacts that our officers have each year.

You'll also see that the increase in the [use of force] numbers that we saw last year, which has drawn all of the attention, the majority of that is a result of a policy change within the Hamilton Police Service. We use to allow officers that were working in groups together to put in a team report — one report that they submit as a team. We now have individual reports coming forward, which means that the numbers will actually increase. I'm not alarmed by that. I think that's positive in terms of transparency and accountability.

At this point, are you comfortable with how the police use of force policy is being followed?

Absolutely, we have very strict monitoring. We have oversight and supervision by our road supervisors right up to divisional commanders. And I am absolutely comfortable with the process of educating our officers on the issue of force and the decisions they are making given the circumstances at the time.

This interview has been edited for length.